The IET Archives has recently received a donation of 200 electrical engineering technical drawings relating to ICI Billingham. The large majority of these drawings date to two specific periods, the late 1920s and the early 1950s. The earliest drawing was produced in 1926 and the latest in 1966.
The drawings, primarily of electrical switchgear and transformers at the various substations on the Billingham site, were produced by some noted British electrical engineering suppliers of the time. These include; A Reyrolle & Co of Hebburn, Tyne and Wear; The British Thomson Houston Company, Willesden, London (BTH); and The British Electric Transformer Company of Hayes, Middlesex. The bulk of the drawings, some 140 in total, were produced by A Reyrolle & Co. One of Reyrolle’s drawings, number 10W370, showing a ‘wiring diagram for A gear – summation metering panel’, is shown below.
History of the ICI Billingham Site
In March 1918, the Minister of Munitions gave approval for a factory to be developed at the site, initially known as the Government Nitrogen Factory, which would manufacture ammonium nitrate. Brunner Mond took over the works in March 1920 and ran it as Synthetic Ammonia and Nitrates Limited – this name can be seen at the bottom of the drawing shown above.
Brunner Mond, Nobel Explosives, the United Alkali Company and the British Dyestuffs Corporation merged in December 1926 to form Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Brunner Mond’s Billingham works, that had been run as Synthetic Ammonia Nitrates Limited eventually, although not immediately, became known as ICI Billingham. Most of the drawings in this donation therefore date to the very early years of the existence of ICI. The name of ICI disappeared when the company was acquired by AkzoNobel in 2008.
The reason for the dates of the drawings falling into two main groups is down to two significant periods of development at the site. There was a major expansion of the site around 1928 when the power station and several large production plants were built. This necessitated a large number of new substations around the site, and many of the drawings relate to that expansion. There was then a new wave of expansion in the early 1950s when the power station was extended to meet an increase in demand for steam and electricity.
A paper on the steam and electric power plant at ICI Billingham was written by its designers, Humphrey, Buist and Bansall. This paper appeared in the IEE Journal, vol. 68 no. 406, October 1930, pp 1233-1275, and contained many figures including the site plan shown below.
The paper, which claimed many new features for the plant, was not without a little controversy and the discussions that followed the presentation of the paper, at the IEE in London and also at the IEE’s North-Eastern Centre in Newcastle, had several speakers who stated that some of the features were not as novel as claimed by the designers. The discussions about the paper were also printed in the IEE Journal
One of those who participated in the discussion about the paper was the well-known electrical engineer Charles Hesterman Merz (1874-1940), who pioneered the use of high-voltage three-phase AC power distribution in the UK. Merz commented, “some of the points specially referred to as novel are, perhaps, not quite so novel as would appear. For instance, the cable tunnels are in accord with recent practice in power stations in various parts of the world.”
Hand-coloured Engineering Drawings
From a purely aesthetic perspective some of the most attractive drawings are the 16 hand-coloured drawings of The British Electric Transformer Company, two of which are shown below. The first drawing (archive reference NAEST 236/4/8) below is a sectional arrangement of windings for a 1,500 KVA transformer dating to 1929. The second drawing, also from 1929 (archive reference NAEST 236/4/17) is a sectional arrangement of a 750 KVA core type transformer.
The Story of the Rescue of These Engineering Drawings
When the ICI drawing registry at Billingham closed circa 2005, the majority of the engineering drawings were not retained. However a number of the electrical drawings were kept as being of ‘specialist interest’ and it is these 200 retained electrical drawings that form the collection now in the IET Archives.
The depositor, John Wheeler (IET Member) and a colleague were responsible for deciding how to disperse the registry’s historic material. The majority of the historic material went to the Teesside Archives, the photograph collection went to Beamish Museum, and the ‘special interest’ electrical drawings, which were outside the scope of the Teesside Archives, have now come to the IET. The whole archive project was summarised in an article that John wrote for the journal of the Business Archives Council (BAC). It can be found in the BAC journal, Business Archives Principles and Practice, vol. 89, May 2005, pp 53-64.
The collection of drawings (NAEST 236) has been catalogued at item level i.e. each individual drawing has its own entry in the IET Archives online catalogue. It can be consulted at the IET Archive Centre, Savoy Hill House, by appointment.